I learned about this book through the National Book Award shortlist discussion video on the YouTube channel, Ink and Paper Blog, and was able to get a copy from my library.
The synopsis describes a vacationing family who are approached by the owners of the house they rented with news of a blackout in New York City. Who can be trusted? What has happened to the world beyond this isolated vacation home?
My initial impression was one of reserved optimism. I got a sense of the author’s talent, but also a sense of his ego: I knew that he knew he was talented. I feel like it is very obvious when an author is showing off his vocabulary, or how “above it all” he is. I also think that this tends to come across in gratuitous use of sexual language where it really has no place; vulgar thoughts that have no point and sex scenes that are emotionally distant. We get it, we get it… “vacation makes you horny.”
Even with these issues, I was immediately hooked. Alam crafted an intensely suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere. I posted my first thoughts of the book on Instagram, likening the book as a whole to the character, Schmidt, from New Girl; one sentence would have me cringing and demanding a dollar for the douche jar, but another sentence would have me relating to the endearing sentiments of parental love and spousal appreciation.
As I read on, I realized this book was not the dark literary fiction I was expecting… this book is a thriller! I don’t typically read, let alone enjoy, thrillers. While not exactly a fast paced plot, the suspense makes this quite the page turner. And while this book is not really horror, I found it terrifying! Alam did a FANTASTIC job getting the every day, baseline, fear level of parenthood in general down on the page. That sense of fear is then elevated by the position the characters find themselves in. What is scarier than parenthood, but parenthood at the end of the world?
The parents in this novel have to put on brave faces for their children, feel the overwhelming instinctual drive to protect them… but from what? They want to get to safety and normalcy somewhere else, and yet they can’t help but retreat into the perceived safety of the walls around them. Stay home, stay safe. Sound familiar? I truly believe that the experiences of this past year put me in a position to really relate to these circumstances, different though they are.
Because the narrative follows a small group who have to idea what is going on, the author relies on interjections of the “little did they know…” variety. It was annoying, but necessary. Eventually the reader knows more than the characters, while still not knowing exactly what happened.
It doesn’t feel quite right to say I “enjoyed” this book. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t easy, or pleasant. It played my anxiety like a fiddle. Honestly, had I read it the week before Christmas, when I first got it from the library, it might have been something I would have to DNF. It reminded me of when, back in April, I would randomly cry and wish I had never read Station Eleven. It is a very bleak, worst case scenario elevated by isolation and complete lack of communication/information from the rest of the world. My gut reaction upon finishing was to say: “Did I like it? I think so. Did I hate it? Yup!” I hope that makes sense, because I stand by that assessment.
Ultimately I do recommend this book. I used the CAWPILE fiction rating system developed by G at Bookroast and came up with a 4/5 star rating.